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London's luscious, low-key side

After your fill of museums, churches and more, consider a chocolate tour, visit a garden or explore the Thames. And then cap the trip with dinner in Paris.

May 27, 2012|By Catharine Hamm, Los Angeles Times staff writer
  • The Olympic rings decorate a lawn at the Royal Botanic Gardens, or Kew, near London. Beginning in July, England’s capital is hosting the Summer Olympics.
The Olympic rings decorate a lawn at the Royal Botanic Gardens, or Kew, near… (Andrew McRobb / Kew Gardens )

LONDON — As a Californian, I had forgotten that you don't cancel your life just because it rains. If you did, you'd never see anything in London, at least not recently. And there is much to see.

Too much, in fact. It's a travel buffet, and it's hard not to load your plate with a plethora of monuments, historic buildings and churches.

It's important to see that London, but it's imperative to see the lesser-known London, if only to escape the hordes who are coming here for the Queen's Jubilee from June 2-5, World Pride from June 17-July 8, the Summer Games from July 27-Aug. 9 and the Paralympics from Aug. 29-Sept. 9.

By stepping away from the famous sites, you see a different, less daunting London. There's lugubrious London, luscious London, Latino London, liquid London, even low-key and sometimes low-cost London. And if even those get to be too much, there's always leaving London. So welcome to London for the "L" of it, a sort of suggestion box of ideas for a city about to steal the spotlight and always threatening to steal your heart.

Lugubrious London

If you want to torment your soul, go to the Thames on a foggy morning and listen to Big Ben chime the hour. On the right day, it's bone-chilling and it's free.

If you'd rather focus on someone else's tormented soul, check out the Wraiths of London, a 2½-hour ghost walk in central London, which is said to be haunted by the restless dead. Guide Alan Aspinall, a newcomer to the crowded ghost-walk field, takes his passion for stories, combines them with history and spins your head around.

He talks about Amelia Dyer, a "baby farmer" in Victorian England. For a fee, she and others of her trade took the offspring from unwed mothers and found homes for them. True to her name, Dyer didn't place them; she killed them. She was sentenced to death, but before her execution, she told one of the guards, "I'll see you again, sir." He did see her again — in a vision, or so the story goes. As Aspinall unspooled the tale, a street sign came loose and clanged on its metal post as we stood across from Old Bailey, the criminal court where Dyer was tried. Coincidence?

Departs 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays from Exit 1 of St. Paul's tube stop. Cost: about $13. Info:

Luscious London

After hanging with the dead, you may need some antioxidants. Chocolate always works for me, and an organized walk sounded sublime. CityDiscovery's Thursday afternoon trek took a group of us to such little pieces of heaven as Hotel Chocolat, where I learned the proper way to eat good chocolate (take a slice, hold it against the roof of your mouth, let it melt, repeat); Freggo (sample the dulce de leche ice cream with bitter chocolate); Prestat; Ladurée; and Charbonnel et Walker (where the violet and rose crèmes became my new BFF). Or you can skip the tour and go directly to Selfridges, which has many of these under one roof in its food hall. It's a little like eating dessert first, but life is short.

Info: About $32.

Latino London

On the outside, the Church Street Hotel looks like another stately inn. On the inside? Fiesta! Bienvenidos to a Latin-flavored London, to a hotel so unexpected that you're apt to ask yourself, "Did I take a wrong turn and end up in Oaxaca?" (Not yet, but hold on and you may.)

Each of its 28 rooms is awash with color (mine was a brilliant beach-day blue), and the knickknacks and pictures say "hola." If you haven't come for the décor, come for the price (rates during non-Olympics start at an almost unheard of $145 a night, including breakfast), the quiet and the quirkiness. You pay a price for feeling South of the Border because you're in what feels like far southern London; it's a trek into the city, but I grew to love Bus 36. Note that there's no elevator, the steps are steep and illumination — in my room, at least — wasn't a strong point. Still, the hotel was a bright spot.

Church Street Hotel, 29-33 Camberwell Church St.; 011-44-20-7703-5984,

The next-door Angels & Gypsies restaurant is more Iberian than Mexican, but it's hard to resist this small-plates place, where hams hang in the window. The fennel/pomegranate/feta salad alone is worth it, never mind the chorizo tortilla.

Angels & Gypsies, 33 Camberwell Church St.; 011-44-20-7703-5984,

If your hambre won't be satisfied by anything but Mexican, try Wahaca (Oaxaca to the rest of us), which bills itself as "Mexican market eating" with such offerings as tacos, burritos, quesadillas and salads. I tried the green rice (coriander, onion and garlic, $3.70) and piquant pork pibil tacos (three for $6.35). To put out the slight sting of the piquant: vanilla ice cream topped with pumpkin seeds and cajeta sauce (lighter than caramel, $6.35). An indulgence calorically and monetarily but a bueno one.

Wahaca, multiple locations,

Low-cost London

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